Comrade Motopu uncovers the reactionary politics underpinning Catherine Liu's new book and her social media presence.
Catherine Liu, Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021.
Catherine Liu on the political spectrum
This essay will examine a few aspects of Catherine Liu’s new book. It will also look at her statements on social media and in interviews, to clarify the political and ideological underpinnings of her focus on the Professional Managerial Class (PMC). In their 1977 Radical America articles, Barbara and John Ehrenreich wrote as PMC scholars trying to come to terms with their class position, limitations, and possible strategies to radicalize and engage genuinely in anti-capitalist struggle. Catherine Liu’s politics are very different.
Liu’s self-description as a socialist trying to push the PMC left is betrayed by her own writing, her social media presence, and who she identifies with as her ideological milieu.
Her milieu could be called the “Tucker Carlson Left.” They coalesce around a grab bag of positions, including defending traditionalism, an embrace of nationalism, and the rejection of “wokeness.” Most of all they lament the rise of elitist “political correctness” on the Left, which they often imply is the major stumbling block to the Left having any kind of power, indicating the main failure of outreach has to do with messaging. Their focus has at times been on winning elections for the Democratic Party, whom they hate. Their political energies over the last five years were focused mostly on Bernie Sanders, premised on the notion that his campaign was the first step on the road to socialism, through the stepping stones of social democratic politics.
They see the extreme Right’s racism as a mere externality of neoliberal policy rather than something the Left must fight against. Since the reactionary politics of the extreme Right and those working class voters who are seduced by them are seen mostly as created by the resentment toward failed neoliberal economic policies of the Left, the Tucker Carlson Left see a route to winning over the masses via promoting social infrastructure, including free college, Medicare For All, and a $15 an hour minimum wage. Many saw Sanders as their vehicle for popularizing these policies and winning over working class people who had gone over to Trump’s right wing populism.
Given their electoral focus, and reasonable assumption that the Democratic Party needs to appeal more to the working class, they take an openly anti-socialist and anti-liberal turn. Many of them insist on jettisoning issues that smack of “identity politics” such as anti-racism, gender equality, trans-rights, immigrant rights, or accommodating people with disabilities. They also discard internationalism, often loudly calling to strengthen capitalist borders to “protect workers” and using right wing language about “coastal elites” and “cosmopolitans” that resonate with racist dog whistle politics. In the process, this Tucker Carlson Left has not only abandoned most of the social issues that progressives and radicals fought for historically, but they have engaged in a weird pretzel logic, using arguments and positions they believe will bring the right wing into a working class coalition. They try to sell these mixed messages to the left with Marxian sounding language. They then peddle them to the Right with what is assumed to be “working class” lingo, including soft-racism, sexism, patriotism, etc., in an effort to bypass anti-liberal feelings. The results are usually stilted and unconvincing.
They have been adamant in promoting center-right and right wing media platforms with large audiences regardless of problematic politics, because they see these as among the most effective mechanisms to deliver their “socialist” rhetoric. The two most glaring examples are Joe Rogan, probably the single biggest platform for, and normalizer of, white nationalist thought leaders and ideas in the US, and Tucker Carlson, whose Fox News show reaches between four and five million people per night with a xenophobic, anti-left, and soft on fascism message. This led one commentator to sarcastically describe the death of Rush Limbaugh, and the loss of his platform with fifteen million listeners, as a tragic loss for socialist political outreach.
The Professional Managerial Class
Following the tradition of Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s two part article in Radical America in 1977, Catherine Liu has long been a fierce critic of the PMC. She is up front about being a self-critical member of this class. Her book promotes a “return to socialist politics and socialist policies, once marginalized by PMC thought leaders and made visible by the historic 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders.” She’s also open about her intent regarding her relation to her own class: “My brief introduction to the PMC is polemical...” (intro).
The Ehrenreichs defined the Professional Managerial Class as “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations” (RA, v.11 no.2). They outlined a history of the PMC, emerging in the late nineteenth century, and becoming more progressive and reformist in their role mediating between the classes, often in defense of working class interests by the early twentieth century. The post-WWII boom was a PMC “golden age” which saw a job boom for professionals and the expansion of the class to the point that institutions needed to start bringing members of the working class in to fill all the new PMC jobs. Liu says the PMC turned on workers toward the end of this golden age.
Some of Catherine Liu’s “Case Against the PMC”
Regardless of what aspect of PMC culture or politics Liu writes about, her critique returns always to a litany of low-hanging fruit charges. In their basic outline, few socialist, communist, or radical left types would challenge these. She gives an overview of the Democratic Party and liberal left’s neoliberal turn, a left Capitalist force that oversees rollbacks on the worker gains of the Progressive, New Deal, and Post-War eras in the U.S. while appealing to identity politics and “wokeness” as a performative substitute for class solidarity. In the end, we see that this latest critique of the PMC amounts to hijacking the “retreat from class” analysis for use by an anti-woke, anti-idpol, and anti-left milieu.
We want to know what Catherine Liu sees as the alternative to the neoliberal left. This is where gigantic problems with her politics become obvious.
I’ll start with a specific example, Liu’s critique of the 1619 Project, which she describes as a PMC attack on both History as a discipline, and against class-centered analysis. Then I’ll get into some of Liu’s assessments of the New Left PMC. I’ll use both to uncover her reactionary politics. I’ll also show the extremely limited program she agitates for as a starting point to build socialism on is an extremely problematic “labor peace” based on the liberal consensus of the Cold War era, with roots in New Deal approaches to reigning in working class militancy.
The 1619 Project as a PMC effort to destroy History and class solidarity
Liu likes to use the shiny “failures of postmodernism” style references common to the Intellectual Dark Web, Spiked online, and Prager U type outlets, as historical signposts. They supposedly provide the context to understand the issues she addresses. She begins with hyperbole, comparing the New York Times feature, the 1619 Project, to the infamous “Sokal Hoax,” the topic which opens her first chapter. The sensationalized incident is well known. Social Text editors published Alan Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” When Sokal revealed he wrote the article as a hoax it blew up a debate over the validity of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline that became a reference point of the 1990s “culture wars.”
In her introductory chapter, Liu belittles the PMC for “their general disregard for historical knowledge, not to mention historical materialism” so when reading her critique of the 1619 Project, I looked for her rebuttals to specific historical claims in her objections.
The only mention I found of any historical fact that Liu objected to was this:
Against the historical evidence that the British monarchy was not taking anti–Atlantic slave trade positions before 1776 and that the colonists themselves were divided on the issue, Hannah-Jones leads a group of writers, scholars, and journalists to dismiss the work of historians of colonial America in order to promote their view of the nation as hopelessly and exceptionally racist
(“Transgressing” the Boundaries of Professionalism).
There is also a statement that “their initial claims that 1619 was the “true founding moment” of the United States” should be retracted. This was the year of the arrival of the first Black slaves to Virginia and the source of the title for the project.
Her charge that the 1619 Project dismisses the work of historians was not backed with any references to the substance of the historical debates over the role of slavery in the foundation of the US, so we have no way of knowing what she’s thinking of. Given that she does not engage with the substance of the arguments and writing she attacks, I have to state up front that I do not believe she’s doing much of a “materialist” assessment of their work. That would include examining their historical assertions and placing them in the historical and material (economic, geographical, ethnic, etc.) aspects of the authors, publishers, subjects written about, or other aspects she chose to focus on. She does not do that.
So I settled for examining her objection to the analytical framework. Here she objects because, in her view, the 1619 Project does not center class enough. Because of this, Liu sees the project as neoliberal, functioning to dismiss the possibility of cross-racial class solidarity in the minds of NYT readers.
This could be a reasonable objection, but Liu doesn’t think it necessary to address any of the writing from any of the articles to show this is what the 1619 Project does. Instead, she simply states, without evidence, that the 1619 Project is pure elite-funded identity politics:
This [1619 Project] view fits in nicely with the story of American pluralism promoted by postwar private foundation–sponsored ideology. From a pluralist point of view, African Americans are a distinctive and powerful interest group who, because of their particular history, should advocate for themselves and for reparations for the singular suffering they endured under the particularly brutal institution of American slavery—there’s no need for them to join labor unions with other workers whose experiences can never be a perfect match for their own. Other “groups,” Hispanics, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and so on, can each advocate separately for their special interests. They just need to come up with competing versions of their historical singularity and find powerful donors who will support them in publicizing their cause.
(“Transgressing” the Boundaries of Professionalism)
It’s flimsy. For example, the embedded notion that pluralism and labor unions are not compatible is presented as true with no explanation. To give one example where unions are considered, Matthew Desmond’s article on capitalism addresses worker rights, union busting and union density in the US as compared to other developed countries, but this can’t get in the way of what Catherine Liu knows in her heart about the 1619 Project.
The rest of her critique of the 1619 Project is mostly a collection of charges against the NYT and the authors being part of a PMC propaganda effort. These include a “follow the money” discussion of the Pulitzer Center that helped fund the project as an indication of the “elitist” nature of the project. Liu’s presentation builds to a crescendo proclaiming the 1619 Project is “a bold attempt to eliminate historical materialism from the teaching and writing of American history while destroying the possibility of solidarity in the American working class” (“Transgressing” the Boundaries of Professionalism).
Related to her specific critique of the 1619 Project, Liu resents the modern PMC for having given up on professionalism as a justification for their existence. “I have no illusions about the power of my critique against the dominant tendencies in academia today, but I will not stop criticizing opportunistic forms of antihistorical, and antimaterialist, antiprofessional work in my profession” (“Transgressing” the Boundaries of Professionalism).
To find materialist, professional, historically grounded critiques, Liu turns to the “[s]ocialist historians on the pages of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS.org),” mainly to show that serious people have objections. The WSWS have featured scholars like Adolph Reed and a group of respected historians who wrote a letter to the NYT objecting to the 1619 Project. The biggest “win” the WSWS seems to claim is that the complaints by some US historians (and many of the usual far right characters) resulted in a slight rewording of the opening statement on the project, which leaves intact the idea that the goal is to center the legacy of slavery and it’s effect on US history.
I wondered how other materialist and Marxist US historians viewed the 1619 Project. The first person I thought of was Eric Foner, who comes from a family of Marxist historians of labor, the US, and slavery, and whose book on Reconstruction is considered by many to be among the most important historical contributions to the subject.
In a radio interview with a Nation Magazine host, Foner comments on many of the articles, and I’ll provide excerpts from two he discussed. First he assesses the entire project positively.
This whole project, I think what’s very good about it, is that it is “popularizing” (...) scholarly findings over the past, let’s say generation, which are not widely known. (...) It’s enabling people who are readers of the Times and others to sort of learn about how scholarship on American history has changed by putting slavery very close to the center of our national experience rather than seeing it, as it used to be in the past as, you know, a kind of footnote in the larger story of the expansion of freedom in the United States.
Foner comments on Matthew Desmond’s article entitled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”
Capitalism is brutal wherever it is. But I think, as Karl Marx wrote, you know, ‘capitalism came into the world dripping with blood’ and much of that blood was the blood of enslaved people from Africa, not only in the United States of course, but in the entire Western hemisphere. So a lot of scholarship has shown the centrality of slavery, particularly the cotton plantation, cotton exports, and cotton financing, the centrality of that to the growth of American capitalism, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Foner responds positively to the article by Kevin Kruse about the impact of slavery on present day city planning and traffic flows.
I thought Cruz’s piece was very persuasive, because it deals not only with traffic, but the whole history of racial segregation in housing, how Black people are kept out of certain kinds of neighborhoods and then in the 1940s and 50s, how highway building destroyed some of these Black neighborhoods. The highways are there mostly to enable people to move from all white suburbs to the center of Atlanta. In other words, they’re predicated on racially segregated housing. (...)The infrastructure created by residential segregation is still there. It makes the point again, one of the main points of this whole project, of how the legacy of slavery, and not only of slavery, of then a hundred years of racism and Jim Crow following, still is part of our society. (...) If you want to understand America today, you need to know this history.
Foner also weighs in on Right wing responses to the 1619 Project. “You know, this is ridiculous. People want to go back to a celebratory ‘feel good’ history of the United States. We’ve debated this for years. You remember back in the 90s, Lynne Cheney was out campaigning against newer views of history.”
While heaping praise and approval on the 1619 Project, he is simultaneously able to be sharply critical.
Weirdly enough, there’s a certain homogenization in this project of African American people and white people as if they’re both homogenous groups, and the white group is basically racist. In fact somewhere in one of the articles they say “you know racism is part of the DNA of the United States” which is not an analogy that I like because it’s a biological analogy and DNA doesn’t change! You can’t change your DNA. To say it’s part of the DNA is like throwing up your hands and saying ‘well, there’s nothing to be done about it in that case’ and I don’t really think that’s necessarily what they want to suggest.
Suffice to say that while Foner can give a sharp critique, he doesn’t come off like Catherine Liu, who sounds like a late eighteenth century anti-Masonite warning of the spreading threat of the Bavarian Illuminati.
Liu’s one specific factual objection is that the “British monarchy was not taking anti–Atlantic slave trade positions before 1776 and that the colonists themselves were divided on the issue.” Here we can turn to Gerald Horne, who holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His research is especially relevant because some of the 1619 Project’s thesis is based on it, specifically on his book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. In an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now!, Horne answered the first question “What should we understand about the founding of the United States?”:
We should understand that July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade. That’s the short answer.
And Horne is no “rad lib" wanting to destroy a Marxist approach to history:
I have an iron in this fire. On Twitter, Hannah-Jones acknowledged that she was familiar with my work. But I don’t blame them for not quoting me, they are in enough trouble already with the ruling class without saying they were relying upon my work!
This [1619 Project debate] has been a very interesting and revealing episode. In some ways I think it is a rebuke of the U.S. Left, which has not updated its historical analysis (to put it mildly), and is still relying on outdated theses.
Historians and media studies professors can disagree with Horne, with Foner, and with the direction much new historical research on slavery in shaping US culture and social institutions, including capitalism, have taken. It is clear though, that Liu’s claims that the 1619 Project represents an effort to destroy materialism and class solidarity are hyperbolic at best, and betray a dearth of knowledge on current developments in historical and popular research. As far as showing that the 1619 Project is a threat to materialist history, or the class struggle, she does not make the case.
It’s standard for reactionaries to frame attempts to update historical knowledge as “wokeness gone mad.” We see it in a recent story from the Guardian UK. “The government is to appoint a “free-speech champion” and warn heritage bodies against taking significant steps in reevaluating British history, as part of an intensification of its culture war agenda.” Currently in the UK, much of the right wing and anti-woke “Left” portray Black Lives Matter as “foreign” and irrelevant, a distorting presence on UK politics and history. This is largely because BLM activists have expressed critical views of British Imperialism and participation in the slave trade. But all of these battles over statues, history, and politics are related.
Longing for the Cold War Liberal Consensus, or “1968 Ruined Everything”
“The New Left/cultural studies types hated the liberal consensus as much as the neoliberals.”
(“Transgressing” the Boundaries of Professionalism)
In a kind of academic “OK Boomer” stance, Liu has made a lot of statements about her hatred of the student movements of the 1960s. She seems to see the New Left (which she and the Ehrenreichs identify as coming out of PMC families) in very stark and simplistic terms, as carrying out the turn against class-based and historically grounded analysis and action. In its place came the identity politics and transgressive individualism of the new PMC. “When the tide turned against American workers, the PMC preferred to fight culture wars against the classes below while currying the favor of capitalists it once despised” (intro). Liu locates an important turning point in the year of global revolution, 1968:
It was after 1968 that the PMC gradually shifted its allegiance from workers to capital. Since that time, the most successful and visible segments of the PMC have brazenly put their smarts at the service of the bosses. If Marx theorized that class struggle was the engine of historical change and the political agent of it the proletariat, the newest incarnation of the PMC tries to make history by undermining working-class power and ignoring working-class interests. The post-1968 PMC elite has become ideologically convinced of its own unassailable position as comprising the most advanced people the earth has ever seen. They have, in fact, made a virtue of their vanguardism (intro).
While this does basically follow the Ehrenreichs timeline, in which the PMC shifts away from progressivism, Liu makes a fundamental change. She describes the pre-1968 PMC having an “allegiance” to workers. While the Ehrenreichs’ articles struggled with how the PMC might radicalize, they saw the class putting “their smarts at the service of the bosses” (as Liu put it) from its origin. They did not have the same illusions about PMC “allegiance” to the working class before 1968: “Even at that time, NEW REPUBLIC editor Herbert Croley noted that Progressivism was ‘designed to serve as a counterpoise to the threat of working-class revolution.’” The Ehrenreichs saw that “[c]lass harmony” was a PMC goal and that it was understood “‘professionals’ could be more effective in the long run than Pinkertons” (RA v.11 no. 2).
Liu makes a cheap rhetorical move when she tries to equate academics and leftists she doesn’t like with ultra-conservatives: “The poststructuralist cultural studies theorists despised the oppressive post–World War II liberal consensus as much as the most visionary of neoliberal economists like Alan Greenspan and his overlord, Ayn Rand.” This type of equivalency has become a signature move for the Tucker Carlson Left and I’ll discuss it more below.
Liu has a strangely high regard for the Cold War capitalist consensus: “The economic system and the social safety net built by that much despised consensus were already fragilized in the 1990s by years of corporate depredations.” Liu seems offended that the spoiled children of the New Left PMC didn’t stop to consider what they were losing in opposing the Cold War state: “That liberal consensus was based on state and corporate support for lifetime employment, labor power, and strong social services and redistributive economic policies” (“Transgressing” the Boundaries of Professionalism).
This all implies the main goal of true socialists has to start with a defense of that liberal consensus. But even if that were just a “starting point” from which to build, this is a terrible minimal program for any Left. The Cold War liberal consensus was in large part about “labor peace” which was based on the legal suppression of labor organizing and power. Liu’s pining for the good old days of labor peace betrays either an anti-communist aspect to her politics, or a disinterest with US labor history. The post World War II labor peace meant that corporate and government sectors agreed to limit the broader welfare state while providing attractive benefit packages for select workers through employers during the post-war boom. For a time, wage concessions were also granted, but they were conditioned upon giving little or no power to the workers to control their own workplaces or determine workplace conditions.
Though Liu doesn’t bring in much labor history to her “materialist” analysis of the PMC, the goal of labor peace, the prevention of labor militancy through labor law, goes back to at least the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935. The PMC was involved in shaping labor law and this is important to understanding the diminished power of the working class by the later twentieth century. It was the PMC that created the New Deal framework that seems the absolute horizon of Liu’s political dream.
Joe Burns writes about this in _Reviving The Strike_. As he describes it, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, part of the second New Deal, was the beginning of “the outlawing of solidarity” which “became explicit with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and was furthered along by Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s.” The NLRA governs the legal formation of unions in such a way that collective bargaining becomes obligatory and it outlaws certain conduct by both employers and unions. The NLRA “treats the decision to unionize as a choice involving only the employees of an individual employer.” This was different from prior trade unionism which often attempted to set industry-wide standards. In the lead up to the passage of the NLRA, Burns notes that many trade unionists saw it as a potential threat to workers’ ability to organize industry-wide. He cites legal scholar Christopher Tomlins who wrote that AFL craft unions worried the NLRA’s passage would
..result in the creation of a weak and atomized labor movement consisting of thousands of uncoordinated groups. [AFL President] William Green voiced that concern in 1934: ‘elections in individual plants supported by the National Labor Board should not be confused with real collective bargaining....In the long run we must look to independent organizations of workers on a national or international basis for real collective bargaining.’ (47-48).
Labor management relations during the time of the Cold War liberal consensus were subject to the bias of the court system with its “pro-management ‘values and assumptions,’ which had no basis in law” (Burns, 116-118). The courts, Congress, employers, and managers were able to limit the scope of union activity to disputes involving a single employer rather than the kinds of industry wide struggles that led to broader solidarity with fellow workers as a class against capitalists generally (Burns, 120-121).
Even New Deal legislation then, like the NLRA, often cited for the ways it strengthened the position of the working class, contained the seeds of labor’s eventual collapse. Liu says little if anything about the role of professionals as labor leaders, politicians, or otherwise in their role in constraining labor militancy from the 1930s to the 1960s because it’s messier than seeing a neat turning point in 1968 when the PMC suddenly went bad. What she does offer is a lot about what was going on in the minds of the post-1968 PMC, their views on sexual liberation, on permissive child-rearing, fascination with self-help, on transgressive anti-professional pseudo-rebellion, on their love of abstract and post modern theory, their love of money, and trendy living.
In Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s, George Lipsitz examines the periods leading up to, during, and after the 1940s and the ways in which labor was outflanked by government and corporations to create labor peace and undermine worker militancy. It covers aspects of worker-management relations Liu doesn’t touch.
Far from the one dimensional sketch of a pre-1968 PMC in “allegiance” to workers given by Liu, Lipsitz notes the postwar period was marked by the possibility of “a totalitarian oligarchy of the major interest groups--big business, government, and labor.” Note, “labor” referred to in the Lipsitz quote is the union bureaucracy, not the broader working class. The mobilization for war and the reconversion of the economy afterward had totally “altered economic and political power relations within American Society.” Due to the consolidation of the economy during wartime, Corporate executives had gained immense power over the economy. (Presumably there were some PMC workers in these corporations that were part of the process.) The benefits of the wartime government subsidies to business had gone most of all to a small handful of the biggest corporations. From 1940 to 1944 “the government paid $175 billion to over 18,000 businesses in the form of direct military contracts. Two-thirds (...) went to just 100 companies. The top ten defense contractors received 30 percent of these funds while more than half went to just 33 corporations” (Lipsitz, 57). The government’s spending had more than doubled the economy while handing over the profits to huge corporations.
Small businesses did not get the same kinds of subsidies and found it hard to compete with larger corporations. At the same time workers faced wage freezes and their unions signed no-strike pledges (which workers often broke with wildcat strikes). The whole system, which leaders hoped would create stability for the capitalist system amounted to what historians call “corporate liberalism” (Lipsitz, 59). This was clearly not a time of labor on the ascendency.
After the NLRA, passing the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 put further limits on worker militancy and solidarity. As _Business Week_ put it, “we proceed best toward the goal of labor peace by strengthening the hands of those leaders of the unions by giving them a larger measure of control over their members than they now posses” (Lipsitz,172). High ranking PMC union bureaucrats were reigning in union militancy rather than encouraging it out of “allegiance” to workers. As the Cold War went on labor leaders became more and more enforcers of labor peace and the “liberal consensus.” “As labor leaders gained power within the corporate-liberal elite and strengthened control over their own organizations, they rationalized their behavior by expressly denying the class character of American society” (Lipsitz, 192).
While Liu yearns for the good old PMC-worker alliance and labor peace, she smooths over some basic contradictions for workers in the liberal consensus. Lipsitz laments that communist union leadership mistook the policies of the rising corporate-liberal state as “a betrayal of New Deal liberalism--rather than its fulfillment” (Lipsitz. 197). The same could be said of Liu.
To return to Liu’s proclivity to use misleading “equivalencies” by proximity in the text, here she draws a direct line from the ideological shallowness of “hippies” to the later “yuppies” of the 1980s: “If the hippies hated the stability achieved by the union-negotiated peace with postwar corporations, yuppies actually went ahead and destroyed the institutions of lifetime-guaranteed employment through leveraged buyouts that led to blue- and then white-collar downsizing.”
No evidence is offered to show that what hippies hated about the Cold War liberal consensus was job stability or unions with enough power to collectively bargain. Without that, it’s a tall order to expect readers to believe that hippie ideology prepared the ground for Reagan and Thatcher’s carrying through with capitalist neoliberal austerity and the rise of the yuppies.
It is also not at all believable that the clean cut pre-hippie working class of the 1940s and 50s saw themselves as living in the union-negotiated workers’ paradise of a liberal consensus.
Read a book like Harvey Swados’_On The Line_ about auto plant work. Published in 1957, it’s filled with stories about workers, young and old, with job security and pensions who want nothing more than to escape the drudgery and physical punishment of work, or the sense that their lives are already over if this is all there is. There is the Black auto worker on the verge of a successful singing career who loses his voice due to a throat injury on the sped up line. Or the man who had saved up his pay to buy a car for his son, who then dies in an auto wreck. The message is hard to miss. The work that sustains their ability to live the American dream is killing them. It’s not just the allegedly spoiled, elitist, and fascist students as Liu describes them, who were questioning the system. There were also the workers who wanted their children to move up into the PMC. Many of the salt of the earth “normal joe” workers that Liu and so many of the current left use as a bludgeon against other leftists also hated the system of labor peace that stifled them.
Another book that could help give a sense of what ground the hippie disenchantment with the Cold War consensus sprang from is Clancy Sigal’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir. It's 1956 and Sigal is wrapping up his time as a Hollywood Agent, leaving Los Angeles and touching base with friends, many of whom were socialists and communists and some who are still trade unionists. They lament the death of labor radicalism and talk about their changing lives. The AFL-CIO are merging, but the ILWU is staying out. He's reading newspapers and hearing radio reports on the Hungarian uprising as he drives out of California. In one scene he stops for breakfast on his drive across country and watches an early morning atomic bomb test in Nevada.
Consider the founding of the Los Alamos Laboratory where the research for the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons took place under the management of the University of California. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory came out of this, under the direction of UC Berkeley. Such connections should be an obvious indicator as to the various reasons for student angst over the roles they were being prepared to play.
Questioning the liberal consensus extended naturally to questioning the role of the professional in the Cold War university. Tracing the New Left, from its emergence in the Civil Rights Movement, on to the Free Speech Movement, then the anti-war, the feminist, and other movements, it seems inevitable that students were going to come up against the limits of the Cold War university, with its state service model, its connections to the corporate world, its private funding sources, and its neutrality on and centrality in weapons production.
Liu is disgusted with New Left elitism and their alleged betrayal of the class struggle, which she finds in their abandonment of the defense of the liberal consensus and their privilege compared to their parents’ generation. In the second part of their 1977 Radical America essay, the Ehrenreichs noted that the New Left PMC was becoming MORE working-class than the old PMC, not less, and that this was driving a lot of the questioning of the old Cold War “liberal consensus” that Liu fails to present critically.
At the same time that many students of PMC origin and destiny were becoming disenchanted with their own class and its institutions, they began to find themselves challenged by the previously alien working class. For one thing, as the university struggled to keep pace with the booming growth in PMC jobs, the characteristics of students were changing. Unable to meet the demand for engineers, teachers, social workers, etc. with the sons and daughters of the existing PMC alone, the colleges were increasingly filled wit the sons and daughters of the working class. As the student rebellion spread from elite PMC training grounds such as Berkeley, Columbia, and Harvard to the much less elite Kent State, Penn State, and San Francisco State, the class background of the activists shifted as well. Instead of student activists ‘well imbued with the traditional PMC values”, there were student activists who had always viewed the PMC-- their teachers, social workers and the like-- at the very least with some unease and hostility.
(RA, v.11, no. 3)
Contrast their language with Liu’s in her discussion of the Paris 68 Student movement and the broader New Left of the 1960s. She traces the 68er’s ideology to fascism, in a comment she gave on the ex-Leftist run podcast “Aufhebunga Bunga”:
This whole generation just HATED civilization. That goes back to the Freudian moment in the 30s when Freud looked at the fascists and said ‘you know these people just hate civilization’ too; the Germans just hate civilization. He writes Civilization and its Discontents. And, the ties that bind a society, or that bind people, let’s not even talk about collectivities, Freud was talking about Eros, literally erotics. [Philip] Roth was talking about the family and the company and the worker to his work. All of those ties were just hated by the counter-culturalists, by the most extreme vanguardist counter-culturalists. You know, they just hated any kind of thing that people cared about. Any kind of relationship people cared about, it was like this acid bath. I do think Roth got something about the 60s.
Vietnam, made American young people, very privileged American young people hate America. And it was awful. Vietnam was completely awful, but at the same time, the American society was experiencing one of the most massive wealth distributions down, processes of wealth distribution down, any country in history had seen. By 1961 the top income tax rate is 90%, The UC is free. Three million young men and women, fewer women, came back and they went to college for free. If you could get into Harvard, if you could get into University of Alabama, the army paid for you to go to school for four years. Now we have students coming out with $100,000 worth of debt after four years. I mean that transfer of wealth and social capital was so amazing and yet you had this generation who decided that we were just going to spit on this country and destroy it all and that we just hated everything.
This is comedy gold. The idea that students would dare to question what underwrites their welfare state, question the moral underpinnings of a society that normalized genocidal foreign war in the name of Democracy, and racism at a level that saw cities exploding in rage, is outrageous to Liu. But it helps to define her political milieu’s value system. Nothing else matters as long as you have a national welfare state.
Nagleite Nationalism and Equivalency in a Funhouse Mirror
And yes, Liu is a virulent nationalist. She has been a vocal defender of Angela Nagle’s articles, including “The Left Case Against Open Borders.” In that article, Nagle taught Liu the art of the disingenuous equivalency when she implied that the Open Borders Left had the same ideology as Milton Friedman and neoliberal capitalists. Never mind that Milton Friedman’s “open border policy” specifically said that immigrants should remain illegal. This was so they would be denied the right to labor protections and the right to organize. In this way, they would be kept as a hyper-exploitable surplus labor pool, whose existence would also help to undermine “native” workers. It’s a classic divide and conquer tactic. Meanwhile, socialists and working class radicals who promote open borders have always stressed internationalism, organizing everyone, and building a united working class as leverage against all bosses. Freedom of movement is seen as a basic human right. It’s obvious that when Nagle, in the same article, promotes “e-verify,” a system of snitching on immigrants to get them fired, she is the one who shares Friedman’s divide and conquer approach to workers. Report “illegals” to push them into the black market where they will be leveraged against workers with US citizenship.
Liu bizarrely dismisses critiques of Nagle with meaningless quips like “anti-Nagleism has become a banner under which radlibs like to rally.” Left critiques of capitalist borders as a system of labor control are similarly dismissed with “Open borders are a radlib fantasy.” It doesn’t bother Liu “the socialist” at all that Nagle literally describes the Chinese Exclusion Act and the United Farm Workers’ “Campaign Against Illegals” as exemplary labor stances regarding borders and the protection of the national working class. These are the among the most shameful moments of labor history, not examples for modern socialists to emulate. But Nagle has returned again and again to her reactionary nationalism, even going so far as to state that specifically “ethno-nationalism” is good and desirable for today’s Left. The Balkan Wars were a lot of fun.
In another Aufhebunga Bunga interview, Liu clarifies a very different role for the left than 68ers envisioned:
I think we’ve overestimated the political value of rebellious culture. I think we’re at a time when we need to be better members of the professional managerial class, real socialists, committed members of the professional managerial class. I want us to be truly responsible bureaucrats with party discipline who are able to execute goals on a large scale. Fuck cultural rebellion!
This is actually where Liu and the Ehrenreich’s position on revolutionary praxis meets. Both see the need for a vanguard imparting class consciousness to the working class from outside. After everything that goes into the critique of the PMC, we’re back at Lenin’s model of the vanguard party directing the class from the outside. As the Ehrenreich’s put it: “In a sense, Lenin’s perception in WHAT IS TO BE DONE remains true: the possibility of building a mass movement which seeks to alter society in its totality depends on the coming together of working-class insight and militancy with the tradition of socialist thinking kept alive by ‘middle-class’ intellectuals” (RA, vol. 11, no. 3, 21).
At the same time, it’s difficult not to see the similarity between Liu’s vision of Social Democracy through better bureaucrats and the “technocratic elite” views of the earlier PMC that the Ehrenreich’s trace to Thorstein Veblen:
..PMC radicalism emerges out of the PMC class interests, which include the PMC’s interest in extending its cultural and technological hegemony over the working class. Thus the possibility exists in the PMC for the emergence of what may at first sight seem to be a contradiction in terms: anti-working-class radicalism. This possibility finds it’s fullest expression in the PMC radicals’ recurring vision of technocratic socialism, a society in which the bourgeoisie has been replaced by bureaucrats, planners, and experts of various sorts. Nor is this vision restricted to the right-wing socialists and social democrats who come forth from the PMC; it has been advanced with great militancy by many who style their views as the ‘proletarian line.'
(RA, vol. 11, no. 3, 18-19)
Catherine Liu complains about the abandonment of professionalism by the post-1968 PMC. Her failure to engage with and analyze sources in her criticism of the 1619 Project, and her tendency toward hyperbole, make her own claim to meeting higher professional standards of analysis dubious.
She claims to be a socialist but in the end, her model for the beginnings of a socialist society is the Cold War Liberal Consensus. This was a labor management compact during the post war boom, one based on labor peace, meaning reigning in working class militancy. Again, her own writing belies her self-definition.
Her milieu, whether you want to call it the Tucker Carlson Left, the Nagleite Left, the Strasserite Left, the Nationalist Left, Nationalist socialism, or something else, represents a political pitch to tie together different political tendencies of the working class. It is a sometimes Left, sometimes Right sounding push to the Center-Right of the political spectrum in an effort to meet MAGA and far Right forces half way in the hopes of gaining a nationalist welfare state.. While the pitch still references a socialist tinged set of talking points, it is based on amputating unpopular left and radical positions. What we’re left with is socialist nationalism. Nationalism is class collaboration, the belief that the national identity cuts across class identity and class conflict. This is why Liu is so adamant that Angela Nagle’s ethno-nationalist pro-capitalist borders stance is built in to socialism.
Something happens with every wave of new socialists, anarchists, communists, and radical labor activists that inevitably some portion of them embrace right wing nationalism (there is no truly working class nationalism) and/or a kind of red-brown strategy. They become weaponized against liberalism, but also against any form of leftism or communism not embedded in and constricted by institutions amenable to nationalism and class collaboration. Even if we never find a definitive explanation for why people like David Horowitz or James Heartfield turn, or why others like Catherine Liu follow their trajectories, we can still recognize and reject their tendencies as they struggle for ideological dominance by posturing as the only ones who really care about working class issues. It’s always been a part of fascist and Right populist movements to recuperate working class rhetoric. Put simply, they don’t care about working class power as much as they care about national welfare states. Others of them have gone much more openly Right Libertarian, combining notions of unleashing capitalist development “for the people” in their appeals to nationalist identity. History is clear about where those exclusionary nationalist and capitalist projects lead. Hint: It’s not communism.